Arsenic-laced water is Oakland's political issue
Highest levels in wealthiest areas

girl drinking Oakland water
Renee Crouch watches her daughter, Danica, 8, drink water without the worry of arsenic.

What's at stake
   * Federal level: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently lowered standards for arsenic in water from wells that serve multiple users, categorizing as dangerous any water that has 10 parts of arsenic per billion. The old standard was 50 parts per billion.
   * Local impact: About 200,000 Oakland County residents are served by such wells, and about 450 of 3,000 wells statewide may have to be replaced.
   * Learn more: Go online to www.epa.gov/safewater/arsenic.html or www.nrdc.org. For a state lab test of water, call (800) 648-6942.

Arsenic symptoms
   * Drinking arsenic-tainted water over a long span can interfere with enzyme production and the body's metabolism.
   * Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include fever, headache, loose teeth, anemia, memory loss, fatigue, weight loss, frequent colds, nervousness and hearing or vision problems.
   * Water filtration systems can filter out arsenic.
   * The National Sanitation Foundation at (800) NSF-MARK has information on water treatment devices.

By Joel Kurth / The Detroit News

    ORTONVILLE -- No one could find the killer inside Renee Crouch's home.
   For years, Crouch and her three children constantly felt sick. Their hair fell out. Gashes developed in their skin. Memory failed. Walking even a few feet became a marathon, but 16 doctors couldn't find the cause.
   The 17th physician saved their lives, pinpointing their agony to deadly levels of arsenic in their drinking water. The diagnosis came just in time. Crouch had all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning except the last two: coma and death.
   "I had no life. My 30s were gone," said Crouch, who has mostly recovered but had to sell her home in Ortonville in 1999 and move to Lapeer to help pay medical bills.
   "The quality of your life is just so poor. It consists of being ill yourself or your children being ill. They wouldn't go outside. You can't go anywhere. All you do is go to the doctor. That is your life."
   Crouch isn't alone in her misery.
   In what some call an under-reported, decades-long scourge, millions may have been sickened from arsenic in well water, experts said. Michigan has the highest amount of naturally occurring arsenic in the nation. Most is concentrated in an underground sandstone aquifer that spreads under 10 counties including Oakland, the Thumb area and Washtenaw.
   Federal officials recently lowered standards for acceptable levels of arsenic in wells that serve multiple users. Environmental and health advocates cheer the move as a potential lifesaver for thousands, but coming into compliance also brings a whopping price tag to local governments, schools and rural subdivisions.
   Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue is hugely political.
   President Bush's administration suspended the new standard -- and scores of others -- until a 60-day review is conducted of policy changes made during his predecessor's final days. For years, Oakland County officials refused to acknowledge or fix the problem. County Executive L. Brooks Patterson once campaigned against officials who even raised the issue.
   "This is a major public health issue, but it's also become a major political issue," said Dr. Michael Harbut of Southfield, who has studied the problem for years.
   "Some of the highest levels of arsenic in Oakland County are also the areas where housing is most expensive. Right away, it becomes a hot-button issue."
   Bush's move added confusion to permanence of the change, said James Cleland, assistant chief of the state Department of Environmental Quality's drinking water division. Backers insist the changes will remain.
   "We're just flying now on the basis that information will be made available over time to clear this up," Cleland said.
   
High cost of compliance
   One in three of Oakland County's 200,000 well users would have dangerous levels of arsenic under the new standards, said State Rep. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly.
   Statewide, 450 of 3,000 multiple-user wells would fail the new limits, which lower the acceptable level of arsenic by 80 percent to 10 parts per billion from 50 parts per billion.
   Homeowners aren't bound by the rules, but operators of multiple-user wells would have five years to comply with them. The impact would be big for places such as Independence Township, which may have to modify or replace three out of its 16 wells.
   The wells impacted by the change serve about 8,000 residents and cost $1 million apiece to fix.
   "It'd be kind of devastating to our budget," said Linda Richardson, interim director of the township's community works department.
   "We're still looking into what we're going to do. We don't want to get caught off guard. We need to figure out how we're going to fund the repairs, but won't do anything until it has been finalized."
   Oakland County operates systems in Oxford, Oakland, Highland and Lyon townships. Test results are inconclusive and officials still haven't determined their next step, said Doug Buchholz, deputy and manager of operations and maintenance for drain commissioner.
   Part of the frustration from communities and the state is that arsenic tests sometimes can vary widely, Cleland said. In some cases, arsenic levels can fluctuate from safe to dangerous in hours, he said. The EPA doesn't address the problem.
   The state eventually will issue directives to well operators on how to deal with the directives. Johnson is working on legislation that would send information to residents who are affected. But she could offer few details about the plan, including the cost or method of distribution.
   "This is not something to be taken lightly. These changes are long overdue," Johnson said. "People's health will be approved greatly by these new standards."
   
Early warnings scorned
   The changes are no small measure of vindication for Crouch, Johnson and Harbut.
   All had key roles in the national move to lower the standards -- and took no small abuse for what some once considered demagoguery.
   A former county commissioner, Johnson began raising the issue about six years ago when Crouch and others came to her with their horrific tales. Her advocacy almost became a political liability, drawing scorn from colleagues who accused her of scare-tactics.
   "I started fighting to protect my family," Crouch said. "I knew people would look at us a little odd. I knew people would get angry at us. But we decided that enough is enough. My little mouth went quite far, but it hasn't gone far enough until everyone knows the risks."
   

You can reach Joel Kurth at (313) 222-2192 or jkurth@detnews.com.